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Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing & Charm School

In this multi-narrative tale about forlorn love, the boutique film Marilyn Hotchkiss pirouettes in its joy for dancing, fused by shiny acting.


As a precious equivalent of a handmade dollhouse, Marilyn Hotchkiss is based on a 1990 short film, narrated by William Hurt, about a Pasadena ballroom-dancing school for preteens, in which 10-year-olds Steve and Lisa first meet. Now grown up, Steve (John Goodman) is dying on a rural road. With his guts splayed over his chest, Steve retells his childhood dance memories of Lisa (Camryn Manheim) to a stranger, Frank (Robert Carlyle), who finds him lying there. Coincidentally, Frank is also taking the same Marilyn Hotchkiss ballroom dancing class, now taught by Marilyn's prim and proper daughter Marienne (Mary Steenburgen), as an adult. As Steve is leaving life, Frank is re-starting his, and the two of them connected through dance. Subplots of the ballroom dancers and Frank's therapy partners are an interesting departure to the colored textures of human anxiety.


The actors bring a wealth of experience and professionalism to their roles, which are pared down for efficiency. Carlyle (Trainspotting) leads the way with modest, conflicted restraint, carrying the group's collective acting abilities on his shoulders. Group scenes allow Oscar-nominee David Paymer to play off Sean Astin, while Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei matches seductive physical moves with Carlyle in dancing scenes. Manheim is perfectly ugly for the haggard, house-bound adult Lisa, smoking cigarettes and unaware of her lifetime effect on Steve. The roster is so tight that Danny DeVito is stuffed into a lower bed bunk as a wise prisoner, with about five minutes of screen time. Donnie Wahlberg is the actor to get most excited about. His flamboyant turns on the dance floor--think Dodgeball's Ben Stiller with a stalker's sense of violent romanticism--hint at the former NKOTB's acting ability. Wahlberg, in the tradition of his brother Mark, could be another brooding Dirk Diggler.


Despite the big-name talent, Marilyn Hotchkiss is small, which may explain its reception (or lack thereof) since its Jan. 2005 Sundance premiere. Its a little rough around the edges, coming from director Randall Miller (The Sixth Man, Houseguest), whose last work was in late ‘90s television. With Marilyn Hotchkiss, Miller creates a time-capsule-like effect with quaint dialogue and close-up camera shots. The director also wrote the script, which is limited in its scope. A handful of the same settings (the dancehall, the therapy room) create a monotony and lack of momentum; the drama is contained. But the color schemes affect the moods of some shots, such as a whitewash over Goodman's dying scene in the ambulance--and the dance scenes have that certain joie de vivre. Marilyn Hotchkiss might be the movie Miller was born to make, but it just doesn't quite reach the winner's circle of timeless classics.

Bottom Line rated this film 3 stars.